Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Has Canada Become a Post-Democratic Petro State?

Tell me it isn't so Joe.  No can do.  Sadly, over the last 40 years Canada has morphed into a mere shadow of its former self, a nation where prosperity was once shared widely and where hope for the future did not depend on the chance of birth.

If asked what did it mean to be Canadian, most of us would mention something about the creation of our social programs that increased the quality of life for the vast majority of Canadians, the demos.

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Clearly, as we approach the 150th anniversary of our confederation, we have passed the zenith of our development as a caring society.  Neoliberal values have taken hold and, as could be expected, economic inequality has increased, meaning that the rich are doing extremely well while the lower and middle classes struggle to make ends meet.

What happened?

According to Colin Crouch, professor and author of the highly acclaimed,
Post-Democracy, Canada, like other English settler states, made significant democratic gains during the first half of the twentieth century, but has subsequently moved on, not to pre-democratic period of the nineteenth century, but to something different, to a society that has not entirely relinquished the social gains provided by the welfare state, but where the provision of social services has become so modest that they have lost much of their efficacy to address the social ills which gave rise to their creation.

Essentially, the idea of post-democracy helps us describe situations when boredom, frustration and disillusion have settled in after a democratic moment; when powerful minority interests have become far more active than the mass of ordinary people in making the political system work for them; where political elites have learned to manage and manipulate popular demands; and where people have to be persuaded to vote by top-down publicity campaigns.

In Crouch's analysis, democracy is an ideal, something we either move towards or retreat from, which is important because it moves the discussion about the quality of our political institutions out of the simple binary whether we have or don't have democratic institutions.  As well, moving back towards the pre-democratic period does not mean we have come full circle.  We retain some elements of the democratization phase.  What changes is the manner the elites are able to avoid democratic rule.

For Crouch, two societal developments are largely responsible for the move towards post-democracy: the diminution of the importance and number of skilled manual workers and the rise of the global firm.  In short, we no longer live in a society where mass production and mass consumption within national borders bring about shared prosperity.  Instead, wages are now spread across international production chains and the benefits of enterprise accrue disproportionately to executive officers and shareholders.

As a result, those at the top global firm have the resources to bypass what had been the traditional political process of making decisions through the people's elected representatives and lobby with great success for whatever policies they need to add to their wealth. 

Politicians are very eager to respond to their wishes since those with the cash in hand have the means to finance the electoral campaigns that get our politicians elected.  In this symbiotic relationship, the common folk, the demos, are outside the loop and have very little say in matters that affect them.  Their role in politics is simply to respond to the public relations campaigns that have replaced any meaningful discussion concerning real political choices during elections and place their "x" beside the name of the candidate that represents their favored marketed brand, commonly referred to as a political party.

In my opinion, Canada has been in the post-democratic phase for at least thirty years;  corporate interests trump the interests of the people; a media circus has replaced informed political debate; and a disillusioned public, sensing it no longer has much say in what gets done, has lost interest in politics and has to be cajoled to even cast their ballots.

Given this state of affairs, Canada is moving towards becoming a petro state, meaning that although our economy does not rely solely on fossil fuel extraction for the creation of wealth, it is the focus of those global corporate interests that lobby the hardest for favourable government intervention and the focus of our federal government.  In other words, we are moving in that direction.

For instance, the power base of the ruling Conservative Party is the oil producing provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, where the Tories hold all but two ridings; our currency has become a petro dollar: its value in lock step with the fluctuations for a barrel of crude oil; Canada withdrew from the Kyoto Accord which would have placed limits on the greenhouse gas emissions, thereby exonerating oil producers for not respecting the limits the Accord placed upon Canada; the government does everything it can to get the pipelines built that would bring oil sands oil to a seaport; in the meantime, unable to overcome resistance from the environmental lobby opposing the construction of the pipelines, oil producers began shipping oil by rail at record levels (a 4000% increase from 2009) which combined with an insufficient oversight of the safety of this method of transport led to the incineration of 47 unsuspecting Canadians in the Lac Megantic derailment disaster.

It is important to note that is the post-democratic state of our political institutions that has allowed Canada to move towards becoming a petro state.  Once political power has been transferred to the political/corporate elites as a result of our archaic electoral practices, the demos just stands by and bears witness to the decisions that have been made in their name but not on their behalf. 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Not a Fiscal But a Deficit of Empathy That Spreads Misery Across the Land

The thing about using the economy as the measure of all things is that in doing we institutionalize unbridled greed as the guiding force for our society.  It takes a huge leap of faith, if not a greater dose of magical thinking, to believe that the rational pursuit of self interest leads to the greater good.  Even Adam Smith, the father of economics, realized that self interest needs to be tempered by moral sentiment.  But we no longer have a moral compass, only the rule of law, and it is the power elites who effectively write the laws to gain advantage and see to it that the laws are enforced. 

Those who fall on hard times are simply society's losers, and they deserve what they get because deep down they are lazy and unable to control their base appetites.  So goes the thinking that drives the media controlled by private interests.

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While the American Empire Prospers, the Nation Becomes a War Zone  

The glorification of great wealth suppresses any potential empathetic response towards society's downtrodden.  We constantly celebrate success. We are always made aware of who is on top, whether it be in film, television, sports, music, business, or finance.  The stories about losers are for losers and you certainly don't want your lot to fall with them, so push them out of your mind and focus on what you really want to be, a winner, one of the beautiful people surrounded by beautiful things.  God, life is good at the top, and I want to be top dog!

What money can't buy, I can't use.  After all, it is what makes the world go round.  Or, does it?

Are there not feelings and emotional responses that transcend the temporary buzz that the possession of material things bring about, feelings that arise from witnessing the birth of a child, first steps, the glory of a sunset, the wonder of a star-filled sky, falling in love?

And are not all of  these experiences potentially available to anyone regardless of the accident of birth?

So, why do we render life miserable for countless millions, so much so that they become numb to the fundamental pleasures that make life worth living?

Well, here in North America, most of us, most of the time simply don't give a shit about those who are down and out, even if we know deep down that we are just a few paychecks from losing it all and joining their ranks.

Got to keep on keeping on, fuck the rest.

It wasn't always this way.  I know.  I had the good fortune to have come of age during the time of shared prosperity, 1946-1979.  Despite coming from a family of very limited means, I received a superior public school education, was able to participate in a host of extracurricular activities, went on to graduate from university, and now enjoy an upper middle-class lifestyle. 

Importantly, I recognize that the education I received was a gift from those in my extended community who thought it was important that access to a good education was a societal good, deserving to be properly funded by taxpayers.  I do not subscribe to the believe that I did it all on my own and that because of my efforts I deserve to keep all that I earn.

Times have changed.  More and more people are turning their backs towards the well being of others.  We still live in an incredibly rich society, but we don't want to share the wealth.

Essentially, our capacity to be empathetic has shrivelled over the last thirty years.  We still take care of our immediate family, but our hearts have grown stone cold to those outside our inner circle.  We can no longer feel what it's like to be in someone else's shoes.  As a result, more and more children grow up in poverty with little hope for a better future.

There will be payback.  It's inescapable, only a question of time.

Notwithstanding, we would do well to remember that no man is an island unto himself, no matter the size of the castle in which he chooses to live.